JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — With the quick whirl of four propellers, a small white drone lifted upwards into a clear azure sky and, in a few seconds, was flying hundreds of feet off the ground.

It was on a mission to map Highland Regional Park while at the same time providing a fun educational opportunity for two University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown students and a longtime teacher.

"I'm still a big kid at heart," said Ahmad Massasati, a UPJ geography instructor. "Give me an opportunity to play with a toy. But the product of the toy is a serious product, something a few years ago we were not able to have."

Massasati and his two students - Eric Lobb and Richard Wagner - could not get as much work done as they had hoped on Tuesday. But there still was a learning experience.

The park, which is managed by the municipalities of Richland, Geistown and Stonycreek, was apparently too close to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport's no-fly zone for the school's drone to do little more than take off, fly the length of a baseball field, and return or for Lobb's personal drone to even get off the ground.

"I didn't expect that the drone was smart enough to recognize that we are close to the airport, so it simply didn't fly," Massasati said with a smile. "It stopped up there."

Despite the day's very minor, trial-and-error, scientific glitch, Massasati spoke about the program - which has been in place for more than three years - with great enthusiasm.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for students to fly their own aerial photography mission, which, in the past, it had to be done with real aircraft, and very expensive machinery and cameras," he said. "But now, the student can choose his or her own area and simply fly it. All you need is just good weather and apparently avoid restricted areas."

Students involved in the drone program have mapped numerous sites, including the UPJ campus, Greater Johnstown High School area, an acid mine drainage location in Portage, roadwork on Route 56 and Cambria City.

For a newest project, Wagner, a sophomore, wanted to create an up-to-date map of Highland Regional Park, using the new - and fun - high-tech equipment.

"It's definitely an opportunity that most people don't always get," Wagner said. "You can only learn so much out of a book. Whereas, coming out here and putting your skills into work and making a project that you're proud of, you can't really put a price on that."

Lobb, a freshman, was so interested in the program that he bought his own drone to use for mapping. "The future is now," Lobb said. "These things are amazing."

Massasati is also working - in conjunction with The EADS Group, a local engineering firm - to acquire a second drone for the geography department.




Information from: The Tribune-Democrat,